Last week, I caught up with two different friends. Both are intelligent, well read, and come from similar backgrounds. Politically, they are oil and water.
As the Presidential election creeps close, I’m constantly bewildered at the disparity of interpretation with current events. Key examples of how that happens have been explored here: The Georgia Governor’s Race: Media, Perception, Communication, and Counting Votes.
Understanding how it happens is easier than why.
No question social media plays a huge role; a world where primary sources can select their facts to highlight and distribute them as fit is powerful. That still doesn’t answer the larger question: what is the underlying cause on why two smart, level-headed friends from similar backgrounds can have overwhelmingly opposite views on just about every hot issue and candidate up for election in two weeks?
While reading The Fish that Ate the Whale, I came across an innovator who pioneered the field of Public Relations named Edward Bernays. Bernays, also known as “the father of public relations,” was named named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life Magazine and wrote several industry defining books including Crystallizing Public Opinion. Born in 1891, he remarkably lived to 1995. Over the span of his life, he worked with major corporations including United Fruit, GE, CBS, and several politicians including President Coolidge, Hoover, and Eisenhower. The Associate Press reported on his 95th birthday here.
While reading Crystallizing Public Opinion, the answer was found as to why opposite, tenable views can be held among two people who — outside of politics — are similar and could easily be friends. Bernays shares how understanding the fundamentals of public motivation is necessary for a public relations professional and where to start:
“Psychological habits, or as Mr. Lippmann calls them, “stereotypes,” are shorthand by which human effort is minimized.
We all have stereotypes which minimize not only our thinking habits but also the ordinary routine of life. Mr. Lippmann finds that the stereotypes at the center of the code by which various sections of the public live, “largely determine what group of facts we shall see and in what light we shall see them.”
…why a capitalist sees one set of facts and certain aspects of human nature—literally sees them; his socialist opponent another set and other aspects, and why each regards the other as unreasonable or perverse, when the real difference between them is a difference of perception. That difference is imposed by the difference between the capitalist and socialist pattern of stereotypes.”
It sounds so simple. Weren’t we all taught about the concept of stereotypes in our Social Studies classes in elementary and middle school? Yet, when I hear two mutual friends who have antithetical views, they both talk in stereotypes. This determines which facts they see, which determines which arguments they make and prioritize.
Bernays continues into the reasoning for stereotyping, which includes group needs and inclusion at the expense of individual freedom for the main goal of building self-importance.
As I continue reading Bernays’ work, understanding why the complexities of perception, opinions, and politics — and how two friends can be so different — becomes much clearer through the pattern of stereotypes.